The White Umbrella – A Learning Experience in Being Polite in Japan

Lines.

Crowded trains.

And a lone white umbrella.

They all came together for a better understanding of Japanese culture. Americans take note. You could learn a thing or 10 from the Japanese people.

First, get used to the lines. There are lines everywhere in Japan’s most populated cities. You form a single file line on your left. No “stay on the right and you’re always right” as my kindergarten teacher taught us. You adherence to standing in lines in Japan is important.

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They embody the values and respect taught to children at a very early age.  From school children to teens to young adults they learn to embrace a respect the many other cultures have forgotten or have over time chosen to ignore. Again, Americans take note here. As a traveler, if you are in the wrong line or stepping out of line, the Japanese people are most likely to excuse you with a respectful wave forward then to shake their heads in disgust. The action fits with their tradition of respect. (VIIST JAPAN)

Trains are also a part of the culture in most larger cities. But…

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Get used to it. I once saw a Thursday morning commuter train so packed in Tokyo that a young man gently (and politely) backed into the super crowded train car by lifting his hands to grab an inside rail on the train. Then, he seemed to just sway back toward those already crowded onboard. He knew exactly the space needed before the doors closed. Those on board swayed almost in unison with him to allow just one more passenger to board.  Yes, there are “subway pushers‘ to force people onto trains. None was needed here.

There’s little to no talking on trains. In fact, some lines have signs that tell you to silence your cell phones and avoid talking.  There’s also no throbbing music,  man-spreading, drunken disorderly behavior, panhandling or pickpockets. It’s just not accepted onboard the train system.

It’s a whole culture driven widely by respect. It’s ever present. So, on that same train trip with the swaying young man, I saw this. A white umbrella (which are always gently perched at an entry way) fell to the train floor. But…

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Why did it lay there?

The man setting closest to the door was unmoved.  Why did none of the extremely polite people pick it up quickly? Was I supposed to? I doubted myself at the time. Instead, I chose to observe.  How long would the white umbrella remain on the train floor?

Stop number one.

I grew even more intrigued as passengers blatantly walked around the umbrella, careful to never step over it.  Would it remain on the floor for another stop? I could not imagine it!

But, yes it did. Plenty of passengers came and went as the door opened once again. Finally, as stop two was just about to conclude, a young man to my left quietly got up from his seat, walked toward the door and picked up his umbrella to depart. A mother and her child quickly took the place of the lone white umbrella.

There is a whole “umbrella culture” in Japan. It’s most obvious outside of stores. This from a “Japanese of older generation” who wrote on a chat board about umbrella etiquette, “Umbrella stands in the town, by a door of shops for example, are nothing but a place where you put your wet umbrella before entering. It’s a social custom of longtime which was made possible by a Japanese social feeling of mutual trust.”

But why not pick up that white umbrella on the train? Two stops and about about six minutes passed.

Train-riding-etiquette-5There’s also a complete “train etiquette” culture. Form two lines before boarding the train. Never rush before others step off the train.  Give up your seat for the elderly. Don’t talk on you cell phone as I mentioned earlier. Don’t do anything that may cause a ruckus. And, yes, watch the body odor because everyone is packed against you! But, there’s no clear train etiquette for that umbrella. A custom is to leave your umbrella by the door as you enter the train. As I’ve noted, there is a common trust among the Japanese. Expect your umbrella to be there when you are ready to continue your journey.

TGMP_LogoMeantime, Tokyo is embarking on an effort to improve the already good manners of its people. It’s known as the “Tokyo Good Manners Project”.  From the group’s website, “According to the results of a survey by TGMP on “images of Tokyo,” almost 70% (64.9%) of foreigners answered that “People have good manners.” However, the corresponding figure among Tokyo residents was only less than 30% (24.6%), which indicates a large perception gap between foreigners and the residents of Tokyo. We see this as a sign that Tokyo residents have an extremely low opinion of themselves.” Wow. I guess they see room for improvement.

As much research as I have done, there is no real etiquette for this particular lone white umbrella situation. Perhaps everyone trusted the owner of the umbrella would emerge soon to pick it up. Perhaps no one wanted to show disrespect by seeming to take the umbrella by even picking it up. So, it lay there. Finally reuniting with its owner as he politely went about his way two train stops and six minutes later.  So when traveling to Japan, I will leave you with a few parting thoughts:

  • Be polite. Be courteous. Be respectful.
  • Embrace the cultural traditions in Japan. It is not your country. It’s theirs.
  • Trust the Japanese people. They already trust you without even knowing you.
  • Petty theft and crimes are rare. If something happens, first assume it was an error.
  • Keep an umbrella handy. They expect you to have it in the rain. Although singing and dancing with your umbrella may still be frowned upon.
  • …Finally, put your umbrella where it belongs. It will be there when you return. Trust me.

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TRAVELING TO JAPAN SOON?

Here are a few more important things to keep in mind.

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